[4 January 2008]
Many music lovers felt saddened when Grant McLennan of the wonderful Australian pop-rock band the Go-Betweens died at age 48 in May 2006, but California musician David James Buckner decided to make something constructive out of his grief. Together with his wife Sherri, Buckner organized a global roster of indie musicians and released a tribute album to McLennan on the couple’s Rare Victory label. The 17-track CD features covers of songs from McLennan’s solo records and those most associated with his work in the Go-Betweens. The quality of material on this disc reveals the depth, beauty, and significance of McLennan’s worth for those unfamiliar with his work and provides a pleasurable reminder of the Aussie songster’s gifts for those familiar with it.
One of the many benefits of hearing a sampling of McLennan’s music from his entire career is that the listener can tease out various threads and themes that have remained consistent and important to the artist. It is perhaps fitting for a disc that honors a dead man that the central motif is something like: life is hard, the world is ugly, loneliness may be your only friend, but don’t despair; with the right attitude and keen perceptions, one can find love and beauty. McLennan offers his songs as totems to guide the listener to a happier existence without denying that the world can be shit. I recommend tunes like “Streets of Your Town” (done here by Ivy), “Coming Up For Air” (by Trembling Blue Stars), and the title track by Private Eleanor for those in need of a quick burst of inspiration.
But really, any of the tracks will do. There is a consistency in tone and flavor among all of the 17 cuts. The downside means there are no standout songs that grab the listener by the ear and demand attention. Also, there are no famous artists here. The most well-known would be Portastatic (Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Merge Records), who is far from a household name. Most people will not recognize any of the acts listed on the credits, although audiences may know some of the groups the musicians may be associated with, such as the Soup Dragons, Frente!, the Auteurs, or the Saints.
But the low-key nature of this affair is part of what makes it so special, which was also part of McLennan and the Go-Betweens’ appeal. He and the band were always a personal favorite with whom fans shared with each other rather than the masses. They were the kind of artists that seemed to make critics’ best of lists every year while never breaking through to commercial success, even though the music they made was exceedingly popular and accessible in style.
The covers on this tribute disc reveal just how good McLennan was, but none of the tracks are really better than the originals. That’s not meant disparagingly. The versions here have their own special merits, but McLennan and the Go-Betweens achieved a level of excellence that cannot easily be attained by others. Check this disc out, but then go ahead and buy all the Go-Between albums you don’t already own. You can thank me later.